Thursday, February 09, 2012

Within Shouting Distance of the Coosa

A fine poem by R. T. Smith on Poetry Daily yesterday—but I have a problem with it. Read the poem first:


Once in Alabama when I was young
and given to aimless ambling,
I followed a red road between pines
where even at midday the cicadas
were complaining, and with nothing
on my mind and expecting nothing
I was about to pause for water
when the road's weedy roughness
opened to a clearing where boards
wounded by years of weather
formed a modest church, the peak
of its steeple gone and door scotched
open. The wind was scattering pollen,
and somewhere off in the needles
a mockingbird thought it was evening
and half-heartedly sang. Do I need
to say I forced the door and found
everything rain-soaked and broken,
the pews only planks whose cinder
blocks had fallen or were, as I've said,
ruined? But I heard a hum or what
I thought could be a hymn rising
from behind the altar and squinted
to see the worker bees dance and circle
where they'd swarmed. Young
as I was, I understood "not one step
closer, do not disturb," so backed
away, because I knew they believed
their honey holy and would not
suffer it to be troubled without
rushing to beset me, and besides I'd
already been touched by the Word
and held under down at the river
till I heard God's gold voice shining,
insects swarming the choir's serenade,
bee sound the very sound He made.


I stumbled at the question in the middle of the poem: "Do I need / to say ...?" Until this question (and after it, in fact), the poem presents a speaker remembering an experience, and the reading of the poem is itself an experience. The question about what one "needs to say" shifts away from the experience of a poem depicting an experience to the discursive nature of the poem itself. In itself, that's not a problem: there are many successful poems that address the discursive nature of poetry as a problem. But this question seems out of place to me.


Mark Granier said...

Yes, that rhetorical question midway struck me as awkward and arch, completely unnecessary (though in keeping with that 'Once' that open the poem). Other things too. For example, the 'young as I was' is a redundant cliché, and why do we need 'do not disturb' after the more interesting 'not one step closer'? It's as if the speaker doesn't completely trust its readers and keeps insisting on holding our hands. But the poem does evoke an atmosphere and the narrative is compelling.

Andrew Shields said...

Two responses, Mark: "Young as I was" seems to mean "even though I was young and naive," which does not seem redundant to me here.

Secondly, and more importantly, while I share the sense that cliche is problematic in poetry, I'm also increasingly struck by its effective and often quite powerful use in songs. Many refrain lines that are great fun to sing along to are cliches, but that does not reduce the pleasure and power of the experience of singing along with them. And if cliche can be so effective in song, I wonder what makes it more problematic in poetry.

Mark Granier said...

I take your points Andrew. Maybe I'm being pernickety, but I still think 'young as I was' is redundant. He has already said he is young 'and given to aimless ambling', both of which imply a certain naivety (youth and naivety usually go hand in hand). But let's see how it reads without that preamble (and the 'do not disturb' sign):

'...But I heard a hum or what
I thought could be a hymn rising
from behind the altar and squinted
to see the worker bees dance and circle
where they'd swarmed. I understood
"not one step closer," so backed

As far as I'm concerned, 'I understood' implies the rest without spelling it out. But we can agree to differ.

Re the cliche in pop songs and poetry, that's contiguous to an argument I have often made, about how the traditional techniques (narrative, rhyme, etc.) are often tolerated in pop/rock music while being dismissed (or worse) in poetry. I detest snobbishness; I think there should always be room in both poetry and music to embrace popular or idiomatic turns of phrase (the music hall and folk ballads have their place in contemporary writing, as they did in Auden's work, along with rap, rave, etc.). But words, without the slave of music, are drier and more difficult. So I do think that poetry has a harder task to roughen up and make something fresh and surprising out of shiny, well-worn phrases, whether it is simply giving a slightly new twist to that old turn or performing some radical surgery,as Muldoon does in his Symposium: